With a death toll exceeding 700, the novel coronavirus is most likely the third leading cause of death in King County so far this year, surpassing Alzheimer’s disease.
A Seattle Times reader’s note prompted me to take a look at how COVID-19 compares with other causes of death.
“I am curious to know how King County’s death rate and cause of death has changed since COVID,” she asked in an email. “I’m wondering if cause of death due to COVID has replaced other causes of death, or is it being listed on top of it all?”
I’m sure a lot of folks have been wondering about this. But the difficulty in answering these questions lies in the fact that we don’t have comparable data for other diseases that we do for the novel coronavirus.
COVID-19 is the worst public-health crisis in a century, and as such, we are monitoring it closely. County and state health departments publish daily counts of infections and deaths from the virus.
This is not typical for health data. For fatalities from cancer, heart disease and other causes of death, the data has a much greater lag time. The most recent county-level data available is for 2018.
So in order to get a general sense of how COVID-19 compares with other causes of death in King County, I used the 2018 numbers for the leading causes of death. I looked at the top causes of death from January through August of that year in relation to the current total of COVID-19 deaths through Aug. 25. (The first confirmed COVID-19 death was recorded in February).
The two leading causes of death in King County each year, going back to the earliest available data from 1999, are cancer and heart disease. No other causes of death come close. In 2018, from January to August, cancer killed more than 2,000 people here, and heart disease more than 1,800.
The good news is that the rates of death for both these diseases have dropped significantly since 1999, as better treatments have become available. Of the two, the rate of death for heart disease has declined more sharply in the county.
Sadly, the same cannot be said about Alzheimer’s disease, which was the third leading cause of death here in 2018. The rate of death from Alzheimer’s has actually increased since 1999. This is partly because we don’t have any treatment that can cure the disease or stop its progression.
And it’s also because of our aging population. Alzheimer’s typically appears in older individuals, and after age 65, the risk of developing the disease doubles every five years.
Alzheimer’s became the third leading cause of death in the county in 2007, and it has remained in that spot ever since.
But that might not be the case anymore. So far this year, it is likely that COVID-19 has killed more King County residents than Alzheimer’s.
In 2018, from January through August, there were 662 deaths related to Alzheimer’s in the county (that was just slightly lower than that period in 2017, when 664 died, the highest number recorded).
In comparison, as of Aug. 25, there were 719 deaths in King County due to COVID-19, according to the Washington Department of Health.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that COVID-19 will end the year with a higher death toll in the county than Alzheimer’s. Fortunately, we’re seeing fewer deaths from COVID-19 in recent months. This is largely due to the fact that most new infections are in younger people, who are much less likely to die from the virus. Improved treatments have also saved lives.
The average number of deaths per day from the virus has dropped sharply in the county. Back in early April, we had around 13 people dying every day, on average. That figure is closer to two deaths per day in the most recent data.
If the average number of deaths stays around two, fatalities from Alzheimer’s and COVID-19 will probably be very close at the end of the year. In 2018, the total number of deaths from Alzheimer’s was 968.
There is one county in Washington where the virus probably ranks even higher among the leading causes of death so far this year.
In Franklin County, in southeastern Washington, COVID-19 has taken 55 lives, as of Aug. 25. That already surpasses the number killed by heart disease (51) from January to August in 2018, and is just behind cancer, which claimed 59.
The majority of the population in Franklin County is Hispanic, and Hispanic people have one of the highest rates of COVID-19 infections in Washington.
COVID-19 is likely the third leading cause of death so far this year in both Yakima and Benton counties.
As of Aug. 25, of the 39 counties in Washington, there were still seven without a single death from COVID-19: Ferry, Garfield, Jefferson, Pend Oreille, San Juan, Wahkiakum and Whitman.